Can we really believe that Jesus rose from the dead? If someone told you they had a friend who spontaneously rose from the dead three days later, would you believe them? Probably not, and that is good, for doubt and scepticism are important tools in helping us avoid deception and discover truth. So if we would not believe a report about a friend being raised in three days, then why believe it with regards to Jesus?
First off, let us remember the nature of the Bible. It does not present a simple system of belief, or a series of philosophical ideas, but instead a series of sometimes convoluted history lessons. For the person of faith it is the history of God’s interactions with humanity. For the unbeliever, the history lessons are still important. For example, when we look to the Old Testament, even a very sceptical person will want to consider what happened that caused the Israelites to think they were rescued from Egypt, and to think they had a special covenant relationship with God. Likewise in the New Testament, even a very sceptical person will want to consider what happened that;
- caused the body of Jesus to not be in the tomb in which he was laid, nor ever be produced.
- caused many people to go around saying that they saw Jesus risen from the dead and be willing to die for that testimony.
- caused naysayers like James, and especially Paul, to change their tune despite a very devout devotion to Judaism. Paul went from persecuting Christians for their supposed blasphemy to being one. Why?
- caused theology to develop within the New Testament which has some surprising and unexpected twists. It was expected that God would rescue His people. It was expected that God would send a messiah. It was expected that there would be a resurrection of all people at the end of the age. It was not expected that God would rescue people through being the suffering messiah who would be executed then rise from the dead, quite apart from a resurrection of everyone else.
What happened to cause these things?
Were the disciples hallucinating? Were the disciples so distraught that they all just thought they saw Jesus? The possibility of mass hallucinations is fraught with problems from the get-go, however the hallucinations theory does not explain the new boldness of the disciples, the empty tomb, the turn-arounds in Paul and James, nor the surprising new twists in theology.
Did the disciples steal the body of Jesus then make up the story of the resurrection? This would explain the empty tomb, but would not explain why the disciples were not only willing to die for their testimony, but able. No one broke down and shared a different story! It also does not explain the change in Paul or James. Nor is it likely they would have made up a story and developed a theology which ensured persecution from both Jewish and Roman antagonists alike.
Perhaps Jesus did not really die? However, the Romans were recognized as being very capable at putting people to death! But why the change in Paul and James, neither of whom were disciples before the events of Easter? A battered and bruised Jesus would hardly be convincing. Why the interesting and unusual new twists in theological reflection?
If you are open to a miracle at all, an actual resurrection of Jesus is the simplest explanation that accounts for all the evidence. The resurrection explains everything; why the tomb was empty and a body was never produced, why the disciples were willing to die for their testimony of seeing Jesus alive and boldly all stuck to the story, why sceptics like James and Paul change their tune, and why theology developed in an unexpected way.
If you are open to a miracle. Therein lies the problem for many people. However, we have already looked at compelling reasons to believe in a miracle working God, a creator God. The cosmos points to the reality of God. Our minds point to the reality of God, as does the existence of evil, the fact of morality, and the existence and nature of the Bible. We can be reasonable people, and be open to the miraculous. If you are open to a miracle at all, the resurrection of Jesus is the best explanation of all the facts.
Consider also, that the resurrection of Jesus was not a random occurrence that came out of the blue. Rather this is an event in history which fits the compelling nature of Jesus. What he did, what he taught, how he related to people, it was all extraordinary. His resurrection may still be surprising, but it makes sense given how extraordinary Jesus was known to be. The resurrection is also an event in history which perfectly fits what the Old Testament was pointing to all along. The death and resurrection of Jesus confirms what we should expect to be true about God, that God is perfect in justice and in love. While a story of spontaneous resurrection would normally be considered nonsense, the resurrection of Jesus happens in a context in which it makes sense.
In considering the context of the resurrection of Jesus, we can also consider the purpose. If Jesus rose from the dead, we look forward to resurrection to eternal life also. This too, is compelling, for why bother with a random resurrection that has no purpose? The resurrection of Jesus is not some random event but one which fits a context, fulfills a purpose, and best explains the evidence.
Last, but not least, the resurrection of Jesus makes sense of the experience many of us have of Christ making a difference in our lives!
Can we, as intelligent, thinking people, really believe that Jesus rose from the dead? Yes, not only can we, there are compelling reasons to do so. The events of Easter point to the reality of the God we discover in the Bible.
(This post is part of a series called “Compelling” which begins here. The full sermon can be heard on the podcast which is found here.)